For quite some time the area surrounding Yellowstone Park has been a popular destination for gold mining. The gold mining craze started in the 1800s with the highest number of strikes happening between the 1840s and the 1880s, especially in Montana. The soil in the state was rich with gold and just about everyone was eager to get their hands on some.
There was an especially large boom in the early 1860s in Montana. Gold was discovered in Bannack during 1862. Just a year later in May of 1863, gold was discovered by prospectors along the Alder Gulch. People began to flock to the site as news of the discovery spread. The area soon became so popular that Virginia City was founded. It was later discovered that the site in Virginia City was the most prolific placer gold strike in the Rocky Mountains region. In fact, during the first three seasons following the discovery about 30 million dollars worth of gold was mined.
Despite the attraction of newer gold strikes in the area, mining fever remained strong in Virginia City until 1875. A new enthusiasm for mining hit Virginia City in 1898 when dredge boats arrived. The new method of mining proved to be useful, and millions of dollars of gold was found. However, the method harmed the environment and destroyed some of the remaining gold rush cities, which eventually made it unpopular. Dredging continued until the 1930s. In 1942 all gold mining was officially stopped by the government due to the war. Gold mining in the region continues today, but on a much smaller scale.
While the region is mainly known for its gold, it also has quite a few areas where gems are mined. The most popular gem of the region is the sapphire, which is particularly abundant in Montana. These sapphires are a little different from the stones in most jewelry. They come in all different colors. Corn flower blue, which is a sort of pale blue, is the signature sapphire color of the state. Sapphires of this color are known throughout the world. Sapphires of other colors are mined from the Rock Creek area, which is in Western Montana. The sapphires from that region come in almost every color, but the most abundant colors are blues and blue greens. A couple other gems of the region that are less known are amethysts and garnets.
Today there are places that invite visitors to step into history and try their hand at gold or gem mining. Most of these places are privately operated and often charge a small fee for the experience. It’s an exciting experience, and there’s always a chance that you’ll go home with a personal treasure.
Places to Try Gold Panning
Bannack State Park
The Bannack State Park offers gold panning for free! An area in the park has large tubs filled with water and dirt from Grasshopper Creek where gold was originally discovered in 1862. All the tools needed for gold panning in the tubs are provided by the park. It’s a fun and educational experience for all ages. The activity is offered during the summer months from 3:00 to 4:30 p.m.
Kootenai National Forest
The Kootenai National Forest also offers a gold panning experience free of charge at the Libby Creek Recreational Gold Panning Area. It is not directed like the gold panning at Bannack State Park; it’s more of an opportunity to try out gold panning on your own. Only non motorized tools are allowed in the panning area. These tools include pans, buckets, shovels, and picks. If you intend to stay the night there is a camping ground one mile south of the panning area. Something to keep in mind when planning a trip to the gold panning area is that there are almost no facilities there. The area has women’s and men’s outhouses and unpaved parking lots.
Alder Gulch Gold
Alder Gulch Gold is a great place for individuals or families to explore gold panning. They offer demonstrations for anyone who wants a little instruction before diving in. They provide the dirt, the equipment, and vials for any gold you find. To get started you just have to purchase a bucket of dirt and begin searching through it. They say that each bucket is about an hour of panning for four people. Alder Gulch Gold is open from Memorial Day weekend until the weekend after Labor Day and is located in Virginia City, Montana. It operates from 10:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m. All ages are welcome.
Gold Panning Adventures
Gold Panning Adventures is more of an all day commitment than most gold panning places. The adventures are designed to teach those who have never done gold panning or who have very limited experience. The day starts off with instruction from an experienced geologist. The instruction session includes how to use all the equipment. Then the group is taken out to practice panning. The session lasts for about five hours and requires advance reservations. This experience teaches participants more than the average gold panning place, but it is quite expensive and requires a 50% deposit ten days in advance. Gold Panning Adventures is located near Helena, Montana.
Places to Hunt for Gems
The Sapphire Gallery
At The Sapphire Gallery visitors can purchase a bag of rocks to search through for sapphires and other gems. They provide an area with equipment to properly sift through the rocks in the bag. Any gems visitors find can be evaluated in the store to assess their quality. Each bag costs $25. The Sapphire Gallery is open year round and is located in Philipsburg, Montana.
Gem Mountain Sapphire Mine
The Gem Mountain Sapphire Mine takes sapphire gravel directly from the mine and sells it to visitors in buckets. They sell several sizes of buckets at different prices. Gem Mountain doesn’t guarantee that every visitor will find sapphires, but they say most people find at least one. The sapphires from the buckets vary in size, shape, color, and quality. They supply all the tools and equipment needed to look through the sapphire gravel. The Gem Mountain Sapphire Mine is open seven days a week from Memorial Day until the end of September and is located in Philipsburg, Montana.
Red Rock Mine and Garnet Gallery
The Red Rock Mine and Garnet Gallery has two mining options for visitors. Like other gem mining places, they sell single buckets for visitors to sift through. They also have large tanks set up where visitors can pan all day for a low price. They supply all the tools needed for screening, no matter which option you choose. The Red Rock Mine and Garnet Gallery is geared toward searching for garnets, rubies, and corundum. They are open seven days a week from the beginning of May until the beginning of October. Their hours are 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and noon until 5:00 p.m. on Sunday. They are located in Alder, Montana.